10 April 2010

What is sex?

I've been asking this question, and variations of it, a lot lately. Ever since getting involved in everything queer, my entire concept of sex and sexuality has completely been turned upside down, and I'm not even entirely sure how to put it back in order. What is sex? What is virginity? What is intimacy? And how is all of this impacted by patriarchy, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, ableism, and various other forms of oppressive thought?

Up until recently, I considered sex to be penal-vaginal intercourse (PVI), lesbian sex to be cunnilingus, and gay sex to be penal-anal intercourse. That seems to be the standard construction of sexuality in today's society. This construction, I believe, is very problematic in many ways, and, thus, I've begun to deconstruct it and examine it deeper.

I definitely think everyone's personal definition of sex should be different. However, even if this is true, there's still going to be a concept of sex as defined by society, and the whole PVI=sex thing is highly problematic. As a society, it's time to get over the systems of oppression that impact our personal sexualities, especially as we grow up, discovering ourselves, our bodies, love, and pleasure, all within a greater social context. Perhaps the best definition of sex is none at all, and it's time that we abandon the question all together.

On the personal level, I'm still trying to figure out what sex is to me. In general, I seem to be content with the idea that sex is any sort of genital contact: genital-genital, mouth-genital, hand-genital, toy-genital, etc. However, there really is a lot more to this...
  • Is orgasm and/or sexual pleasure important? What about all those times I engaged in sex and got no sexual pleasure out of it, but was satisfied in other ways? What about sex where not all the partners are receiving stimulation? What if none of the partners orgasm?
  • Is physical contact an important part of sex? What about people who can reach orgasm and/or get sexual pleasure without physical stimulus?
  • How about physical stimulus that does not include the genitals? What about people who can reach orgasm with their nipples or other parts of their body? What about disabled people who do not have sensation in their genitals or are incapable of using their genitals for sex?
  • Is intimacy an integral part of sex? What is intimacy? Are one-night stands intimate?
  • Is it sex if it's not consensual? Is rape really sex?
  • Is masturbation sex?  I refuse to make a value judgment on masturbation, and I hate the construction of sex as greater than masturbation. Still, I am uncertain if masturbation is a type of sex or not sex at all.
  • Is it sex of your partners have a different definition of sex than you? Are you having sex if the people you're with don't think it's sex?
  • What's the relationship between sex and virginity? Can you have sex and still be a virgin? Can you lose your virginity without having sex? Are there multiple virginities?  (Is the concept of virginity an inherently sexist ideal?)
So tell me, dear friends. What is sex to you?


  1. I really like those questions. I still struggle with my answer. I really don't know and at this point I think it's better to just do whatever and focus on the details of how to linguistically construct it later, or not at all. In high school, our abstinence unit never used the term "sex." It was something genital activity. I don't remember the phrase right now. But it put all activities that the Church felt should be saved for marriage under one category that actually defined them and actually left room for situations where people could be whatever gender, whatever number of people, have whatever abilities, etc. (Perhaps the emphasis on genitals was a little narrowing, but it was much more open than usual phrases or definitions of "sex.") When I remember it I'll let you know. But it was almost four years ago.

  2. The essays and fictions writing by erotic philosopher Marco Vassi would really be helpful to you in this pursuit.

    I do not typically share my own personal "definitions" of sex, because I feel it is a mental, and physical experience beyond definitions. It is a different level of communing between individuals and I think any of my frugal attempts to define it will only make it less of an experience and more of an idea. (I never want sex to be an idea)
    I feel this way about defining a lot of things in my life, as I have to put super complex labels on gender and sexuality which inevitable are weaken through contradiction, and become useless for me and others because they are not actually conveying a universal truth. I feel the same way about the word sex, and your breakdown and analysis only makes me further believe that definitions will never convey a single truth or meaning.

    My question, is a question you have failed to address and that is. If we define sex for ourselves, does it become part of our identity such as the labels of gay, straight; Christian, Muslim; etc.?

    Also, in case you can not find a Vassi book, because they are hard to come by I will present his definition of sex here for you as well.
    Sex is biological and considered "work"
    that is a function of responsibility.
    Number of people: two
    Type: Male and Female
    Activity: Penetration by penis into vagina followed by ejaculation, during a period of fertility.

    Metasex is psychophysical and considered "play"
    that is a function of compassion
    Number of people: Any
    Type: any mixture of gender
    Activity: anything desired by the participants.

    This definition comes from the Metasexual Manifesto, and I think the essay is an interesting shift in understanding sex. I suggest it to you.

  3. This is a really interesting post. I never actually thought of any of this before. Very deep indeed.

    Also, I don't know how board you get but you should check out this site: http://polldaddy.com/ You could make a survey with these kinds of questions and see what you get! Or you could do some polls and poll your readers! That's how nerdy I am... Just a thought! :-D

  4. Also many Grinnellians have written papers about this, I have been interviewed for at least two. I could find the final files and send them to you if you are interested.

  5. I would love that. I've been following discussions on the topic in several blogs and forums and the like.